Layout artists are vfx’s unsung heroes

'Avatar,' 'Transformers' rely on digital whizzes

How can a mass of bits and bytes stomp its heavy metal feet on a sand dune filmed by Michael Bay? Or, how can an elegant combination of ones and zeroes touch an actor filmed by James Cameron? It starts with layout artists.

“Layout artists are the unsung heroes,” says Industrial Light & Magic’s Scott Farrar, visual effects supervisor for “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” “Once you scan a shot filmed on location into the computer, it’s just a 2D photograph. Layout artists are the key to putting characters in place.”

CG robots can’t fight on top of a photograph; they need to climb inside the landscape. So, layout artists at ILM build three-dimensional virtual environments that match the filmed sets. “Layout artists have to match the position of anything a CG character touches down to the film grain,” Farrar says. “Otherwise, things slide.”

The artists then orient the virtual environments to match the camera view in every frame as the camera moves through a shot.

“Transformers'” shots were particularly tricky to match.”In the desert, the ground undulates, a forest doesn’t have straight lines, and the wind moved everything,” says Terry Chostner, layout supervisor at ILM. “Plus, Michael Bay runs six or eight cameras on a shot and shoots all sorts of formats with lenses that have different distortions. It made things very difficult.”

The “Avatar” layout team, facing unprecedented technologies, had to almost reinvent the process. “Layout for ‘Avatar’ was very different from what we would typically call layout,” says Shawn Dunn, Weta’s head of layout and animation technologies. “It wasn’t just at the front end.”

The picture was shot in stereoscopic 3D (S3D), so the layout artists had to match two camera views, left eye and right eye. Much of “Avatar,” however, takes place in an all-CG world, with performance capture animation.

Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment provided data captured from the actors’ performances and a low-resolution model of the ground plane. Weta’s layout artists then gave their modeling department a list of assets — trees, bushes, vines, and so forth — to build in high resolution, translated Cameron’s camera moves into the virtual world, and sent high-resolution digital sets to the lighting team.

“I was providing data to people until the last week,” Dunn says. “We have characters moving rapidly through vistas with 100,000 trees, bushes, rocks and vines. The amount of work we had to do was phenomenal.”